Five questions for Louise Erdrich

erdrich louise 300x255 Five questions for Louise ErdrichLouise Erdrich’s new book, Chickadee (HarperCollins, 8–12 years), takes place in 1866, a generation after the first three books in her Birchbark House series. Omakayas is now the mother of twin eight-year-old boys, Chickadee and Makoons, but she and her extended Ojibwe family are still living in the Northern Forest and following their traditional, nomadic way of life. All this changes when Chickadee is kidnapped and the family must follow him out of the woods and onto the Great Plains. Chickadee portrays a watershed moment in Native history—at the same time, it’s also a riveting, child-centered adventure story.

1. Why did you decide to move forward a generation? And was there a conscious parallel with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little Town on the Prairie?

Louise Erdrich: When I began writing the books I knew I wanted to keep my heroes middle-grade-aged, and also to continue with Omakayas’s life. The way to do this was to skip forward every three books or so. That is why we see Omakayas as a mother for the first time, and become immediately involved with her twin sons. The migration across Minnesota into the Dakotas, and the warmth of family life, is something that these books have in common with the Little House series. I am happy that they are being read together, as the Native experience of early western settlement is so often missing in middle-grade history classes.

erdrich chickadee 300x206 Five questions for Louise Erdrich2. After he is kidnapped, Chickadee is out in the world having adventures while his twin is left behind. Will Makoons get a story of his own?

LE: The next book, a twin to Chickadee, is titled Makoons. That book is going to be very personal for me because for the first time I will be writing from the living memory of my relatives. I was fortunate enough as a child to remember my great-grandfather, The Kingfisher, who lived into his nineties and had been part of some of the last buffalo hunts along the Milk River in Montana. So what I will be describing has incredible resonance for me.

3. One of my favorite things about Chickadee is your depiction of the two kidnappers. They start out so realistically menacing and then morph into almost folkloric characters—none-too-bright, buffoonish giants. How did their portrayal evolve?

LE: How did the two brothers evolve? I couldn’t help it. Every book needs some comic relief!

4. Is the mosquito attack on the oxcart train based on an actual occurrence? How about the infestation of baby snakes where Uncle Quill is sleeping?

LE: Both incidents are based entirely on fact. The ravenous clouds of mosquitoes are described in many accounts of the Red River Oxcart Trails, and (although I am thankful never to have experienced one) by all reports the attacks were exactly as terrifying as I’ve written them. Mosquitoes and their larvae are sort of the plankton of the bird, bat, and insect world. They feed on mammals, but in turn they support blue swallows, black swifts, green dragonflies, and countless other creatures. As for the snakes, they are a very traditional and chummy creature. They have nests in places where they return every year. I have friends whose house is built on one of these snake nests, and they see snakes every single day.

5. Have you ever tasted bouyah? It sounds awful!

LE: Bouyah is described in many trappers’ journals and historical accounts as being pretty bad. I have eaten it (upscale ingredients—no hair, no mice) as a sort of meaty potato stew, and it’s very tasty! Our clumsy kidnapping brothers were unquestionably bad cooks.

From the September 2012 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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About Martha V. Parravano

Martha V. Parravano is executive editor of The Horn Book Magazine and coauthor, with Roger Sutton, of A Family of Readers (Candlewick). She is coauthor of the Horn Book’s Calling Caldecott blog and has served on the 2008 Newbery committee and chaired the 2013 Laura Ingalls Wilder committee.

Comments

  1. Lovely interview! I’ve never read Louse Erdrich’s children’s novels but I did enjoy Love Medicine immensely! The exquisite inter-connectivity of her storytelling between otherwise disjointed tales just captivated me, and exposed a life and culture entirely new to me. I look forward to exploring her other books now, and especially this one, Chickadee! The characters sound charming in their own ridiculous ways, and now I can’t stop wondering about this “bouyah”…

  2. I haven’t ever read any of Louise Erdrich’s children’s novels, but now I think I am going to have to. “Little House on the Prairie” was one of my favorites series as a child, and I still remember reading them in third grade, with the rest of my class. I’m definitely going to look into picking these up. The only other Erdrich novels I have read are “Love Medicine” and “The Plague of Doves,” both of which were wonderful.

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  1. [...] dinner (too rich for my blood/wallet) but honored the occasion by reading the fiction winner, Louise Erdrich‘s The Round House on the trip home. It’s good, and with enough YA interest to make me [...]

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